Westminster can’t return to business as usual post-lockdown, warn Scottish MPs

There should be “no going back” to business as usual for Westminster after the coronavirus crisis, Scottish MPs have said, as the UK parliament prepares to harness technology for the first virtual sitting in its 700-year history.
Former Scottish Secretary David Mundell will ask one of the first ever remote Prime Minister’s Questions on Wednesday from his Borders constituencyFormer Scottish Secretary David Mundell will ask one of the first ever remote Prime Minister’s Questions on Wednesday from his Borders constituency
Former Scottish Secretary David Mundell will ask one of the first ever remote Prime Minister’s Questions on Wednesday from his Borders constituency

All of Scottish MPs are to stay away from Westminster when parliament returns today - with Scotland not represented by a single member in the Commons chamber.

Instead, the nation’s MPs will take advantage of historic plans for a ‘virtual parliament’ allowing parliamentarians to quiz ministers and take part in debates remotely, using video conferencing technology.

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Former Scottish Secretary David Mundell will ask one of the first ever remote Prime Minister’s Questions tomorrow from his Borders constituency.

MPs stressed they would be focusing on the unprecedented volume of constituency cases they are receiving as the economic fallout from the coronavirus outbreak grows.

But with some ministers and a number of English members expected to appear in person, several parliamentarians told The Scotsman that the Commons chamber should be completely closed in the interest of fairness, while others called for the measures to be extended beyond the crisis.

Remote working has been introduced following fears over the rapid spread of the coronavirus in and around Westminster before parliament rose three weeks ago.

MPs representing rural constituencies - particularly in Scotland - have also raised concerns over the difficulty of travelling to and from parliament while a nationwide lockdown continues, and the risk of spreading the disease further.

None of the SNP’s 47 MPs will be present in London when the extended Easter recess ends this afternoon, including Westminster leader Ian Blackford.

Four Liberal Democrat MPs and the sole Scottish Labour representative, shadow Scottish Secretary Ian Murray, will also use the video conferencing platform Zoom to work from home.

The four backbench Scottish Conservative MPs told The Scotsman they would be staying in their constituencies.

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Both Secretary of State Alister Jack and Douglas Ross, his junior minister, will continue to work remotely. Mr Jack has been working from home since developing coronavirus symptoms, which he has now recovered from.

MPs will sign off on the historic changes today. Following agreement between Commons authorities, the government and opposition parties, up to 120 MPs will be able to take part in proceedings remotely, with up to 50 remaining in the chamber under “strict social distancing rules”.

A decision has yet to be taken on how votes will be managed, although there is no major legislation on the immediate horizon. The House of Lords is to use a rival remote working technology, Microsoft’s Teams platform, and aims to be fully virtual by the end of the week.

The SNP has welcomed the move, but their deputy Westminster leader Kirsty Blackman said having any MPs in parliament would put parliamentary workers and constituents “at an increased and unnecessary risk”.

“I hope my MP colleagues from all parties will agree that working remotely is the sensible thing to do at this time, to protect staff and our constituents,” she said earlier this week.

Edinburgh East SNP MP Tommy Sheppard said he would not be travelling to London, and labelled anyone who did “irresponsible”.

“We’re on a rota to join in virtually,” he said. “We’ll all be putting in questions.”

Mr Sheppard welcomed the move to allow remote participation but said parliament was still a long way from allowing remote voting.

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“Technologically voting is easier - people do it every Saturday night when the X Factor is on. but they’re not doing that,” he said.

“I do acknowledge that in terms of the UK parliament they have moved a ver long way in a relatively short time. Looking at it outside the bubble it doesn’t appear that dramatic.

“I don’t want to be churlish - something is happening and it’s a step in the right direction.

“But we’re a long way from any virtual decision-making, passing legislation.”

Mr Sheppard suggested Westminster would “busk this for the rest of the lockdown”, but said if it proved successful there would be “no going back” on the use of technology.

“If satisfactory procedures are established which enable people to discuss things on a virtual basis people will say ‘Why spend all this time and money getting from the four corners of the UK to one spot to do this?’”

“There is still a need to make eye contact once in a while, but you could have a mixture - you could introduce more virtual meetings and distance working which would be more efficient and allow MPs to spend more time in their constituencies.”

But Scottish Tory MP John Lamont said the measures “can only be a short term solution to deal with these unprecedented circumstances”.

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“Parliament should be allowed to return to its normal working practices as quickly as possible after the lockdown restrictions begin to be lifted,” Mr Lamont said.

Senior Liberal Democrat MP Alistair Carmichael, who represents Orkney and Shetland, said the historic plans were “a step in the right direction”, but warned the virtual sitting should not disadvantage MPs in the furthest-away constituencies from Westminster.

“Parliament must lead by example and become fully virtual in the next few weeks, for the safety of MPs and staff alike,” Mr Carmichael said.

“If we are all in the same boat then there cannot be a privilege of access for one part of the country over another.”

His Scottish Lib Dem colleague Wendy Chamberlain warned that the plans could disadvantage smaller parties, who rely on ‘bobbing’ in the Commons chamber to catch the Speaker’s eye and be called on to ask questions.

Mr Murray is staying away from Westminster because his partner is following medical advice to self-isolate.

“I also don’t think MPs should be travelling unnecessarily to London and home again unless unavoidable,” he said.

“I think it is avoidable given the virtual set-up. It is a good way to represent our constituents’ concerns and I am glad it has been put in place.

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“Parliament needs to sit and we have more than enough issues to raise and scrutinise.”

Fears have been raised about the security of the Zoom platform after reports of some remote meetings being hacked, with the Ministry of Defence suspending its use, but parliamentary authorities say they have taken security precautions.

MPs raised more mundane concerns. Ms Chamberlain warned of a battle for bandwidth on the family wifi, with democratic scrutiny competing against her son playing online game Fortnite, her daughter on video sharing site tiktok, and her husband on social media.

Mr Mundell made history in 1999 by asking the first ever question in the newly-reconstituted Scottish Parliament, and looks forward to doing so again by asking the first remote PMQ from Scotland.

He suggested the biggest hazard to the new system would be low tech - constituents ringing the doorbell during his question, or MPs’ children bursting in on a debate.

“I might make a sign for my front door: ‘Do not disturb - PMQ in progress’.”



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